Jews and Kurds: Two peoples, bound by hope

As Jews, we know all too well the fear of the hangman’s noose.

Kurds recieve blankets from IsraAid truucks (photo credit: ISRAAID)
Kurds recieve blankets from IsraAid truucks
(photo credit: ISRAAID)
One year after the collapse of the Axis powers and the end of World War II, a group of Kurdish men meet to discuss their passion for a national homeland for their people. A dream that had been in the works for more than 500 years. A dream that had survived the deadly violence of war, genocide and government persecution.
The men put pen to paper and created a framework for a country for their people to be safe and free from tyranny. But these men wouldn’t ever know the feeling of freedom or independence. These men would only know the coarse feeling of a cold Iranian noose around the neck of anyone who dared to dream.
As Jews, we know all too well the fear of the hangman’s noose. Our aggressors may have historically been different, but we’ve been subject to the same fear. We’ve felt the noose of the Spanish, the Russians and the Germans throughout our history. In 1948, after our very own declaration of independence, we feared the noose yet again. But this time was different. It was different because we had a state of our own. A state in which Jews could be Jewish. A state where dreams that had spanned millennia could be realized. Through this newfound independence, a realization emerged that the hangman’s noose could no longer come for us without a response; that we were, for the first time since the Roman expulsion of our people from Israel, truly free.
The Kurdish narrative is not that different from our own. An ethnically unique people, rich in culture, a belief in democracy and human rights, and the quest for a place to call their own. We know these dreams because we share them. As Jews, and as supporters of Israel as a Jewish state, we are morally bound to support the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination.
What Israel represents to the Kurds is the realization of that dream. They see in us a people that endured a similar history of oppression and genocide. The Kurds, like Jews, have been subject to the rule of others for thousands of years, never fully being able to trust their neighbors and living in fear of the governments that have ruled over their people. They see what Israel has achieved, and they rightfully want it for the 30-45 million Kurds who live in the region and in the around the world.
When more than 800,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries in the 1950s, we had somewhere to welcome them. In Israel, we had a place for them to live and thrive. This includes Kurdish Jews, of whom 125,000 call Israel home today.
For their non-Jewish Kurdish brothers, however, it wasn’t so easy. The hangman came for them again, and this time the price was heavy. When Saddam Hussein’s government came for them, they had nowhere to go. Through a crescendo of violence and oppression, the governments of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria put in place laws that restricted the Kurdish language, culture and freedom of religious expression.
The culmination of this violence was the Anfal genocide carried out by Saddam’s killing machine from 1986-1989, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 182,000 Kurdish men, women and children. The worst of the atrocities happened in Halabja, where as many as 5,000 civilians were killed in a deadly mustard gas attack.
The Kurdistan Regional Government, a semi-autonomous government in Northern Iraq, has announced that it will hold a referendum for independence on September 25, 2017. While not a perfect plan, and one that is likely to be challenged by the government in Baghdad, it is incumbent on us as Jews to support their quest for statehood. Their neighbors are already readying their ropes. If we have learned anything from our own history, it is that we cannot expect the hangman to show mercy for those he is obligated to hang. Only self-determination and self-rule can cut his rope.
The Kurdish People stand on the precipice of history, and they will remember the friends who came to their aid when they needed it most. Let’s hope it is a friendly Jewish face they see. In an ever-changing Middle East, the hangman’s rope casts a long shadow. Let’s support our Kurdish brothers as they seek to sever it once and for all.
The author serves as chief advancement officer at The Israel Project and has spent the past 15 years in international politics and in the Jewish Federation system in various capacities.